Department of the Environment [DoE] has served notice on sand companies operating ‘illegally’ on Lough Neagh, telling them to stop by the end of June.
In a statement to the Mail, a spokesperson for Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, said the decision to take action was the result of a detailed investigation into operations over the past few years.
To date I have seen no conclusive evidence that the activity is not causing environmental damage - Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan
Mr Durkan advised the companies involved to “cease” last September amid environmental concerns.
However, barges could be seen operating on the lough as recently as two weeks ago and led the Green Party to serve notice on the Minister himself under the Environmental Liability Directive, while a complaint was submitted to the European Commission.
It also emerged that the Northern Ireland Audit Office was investigating the environmental impact of sand extraction, focussing specifically on DoE’s role.
Read more: Environment Minister fails to protect Lough Neagh from ‘illegal’ sand dredging
Speaking about his decision to take action, Minister Durkan said he has “not to date seen any conclusive evidence that the activity is not causing environmental damage”.
“I had hoped that the operators would have stopped dredging voluntarily pending the resolution of the matter,” he explained.
“The operators had indicated to me some time ago that they would be submitting a planning application to regularise the situation. I am disappointed that to date no application has been received.
“I am convinced on the basis of the evidence gathered by officials that dredging on the lough is continuing despite my department’s request that it cease.
“My department is therefore moving to formal enforcement action with the notices served yesterday [Wednesday]. Failure to comply with an enforcement notice is a criminal offence.”
“Significant survey work, in addition to what has already been submitted, will be required to inform the Environmental Impact Statement which must accompany the planning application,” he added.
“As Lough Neagh has a number of important European designations in terms of wildlife and natural habitats, sufficient information must also be provided to allow the Department to complete a Habitats Regulations Assessment under the Conservation (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1995. Therefore, the Department cannot simply postpone formal action pending the submission of a planning application as it appears to me that this will not happen anytime soon.
“While I understand that these activities have been ongoing over many years, the simple fact remains that continuing extraction is development requiring planning permission and is currently unauthorised.”
The Minister also said that while he recognises the economic benefits of sand extraction, he must weigh this up with potential harm to the environment.
“To date I have seen no conclusive evidence that the activity is not causing environmental damage,” he added.
“Therefore I have no option but to take a precautionary approach until it can be demonstrated the activity can be carried out without unacceptable impact on the natural environment.
“In the interim I await confirmation that the notices have been complied with. Monitoring will continue. Should activity continue further enforcement powers are available to the Department, including legal action.”